Recent primary election results in two legislative races and messy fights among leaders of the Republican Party make clear why Utah’s candidate nominating system needed to be changed.
Small pockets of party activists have controlled the caucus/convention system that decides who will be on the ballot for years.
Since the Utah Legislature this year passed a compromise bill to stop the Count My Vote petition drive for a ballot initiative that would have changed the system to a direct primary, those power brokers, fearing they may lose their grip, have been working against the legislation ever being put to practice.
Calls for repeal of the law before it takes effect in 2016 and threatened lawsuits to stop it have been rampant.
But recent events show the very people who claim a direct primary would be an assault on grass-roots politics are the ones jealously trying to keep the decision making in the hands of the cliques and away from the grass roots.
Take the two Republican legislative races in Utah’s southwestern sunbelt region, for example.
In Senate District 28, which covers Iron, Washington and Beaver counties, the race was between former Sen. Casey Anderson, who was chosen by party insiders to fill the remainder of the term after Sen. Dennis Stowell died, and Sen. Evan Vickers, who defeated Anderson in the next election.
Anderson was a leading opponent of Count My Vote and the compromise legislation and a vocal advocate of the caucus system where delegates are elected at small neighborhood gatherings and then choose the candidates at the convention.
Anderson used Vickers’ vote in favor of the compromise as the main issue against him. Anderson rode that cause to a dominating victory at the convention, coming within one vote of the 60 percent threshold needed to win the nomination outright and avoid a primary.
But when the decision was put to a broader Republican base in the primary, the outcome was just the opposite.
Vickers defeated Anderson by a more than two-to-one margin — 15,576 to 7,629.
In Iron County’s House District 72, the race was between incumbent John Westwood and Iron County GOP Chairman Blake Cozzens and the issue again was Count My Vote.
Under Cozzens’ leadership, the Iron County Republican Party was among the most active of the groups taking a position against Count My Vote. The party was one of the first to contribute money — $5,000 — to an organized anti-Count My Vote effort.
Westwood voted in favor of the compromise, and Cozzens made that the number one issue against the incumbent.
Meanwhile, State Republican Chairman James Evans publicly challenged Cozzens’ decision to run against another Republican for the House seat while retaining his position as chairman of the county party.
Evans argued that Cozzens’ chairmanship gave him an unfair advantage among the delegates at the convention, but Cozzens refused to resign as chairman.
Cozzens did well at the convention, pushing the race against the incumbent to a near draw among the delegates.
But when their battle went before the broader Republican electorate in the primary, Westwood crushed the chairman.
Westwood received 1,936 votes to Cozzens’ 738.
Those two races demonstrate the gap between the average Republican voter and the insider delegate group chosen by small pockets of neighborhood activists at the caucuses held in March, a time of the year when most people are not thinking about politics.
They also demonstrate why those party activists are trying to retain the caucus/convention system and maintain their own power.
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